HADRIAN’S WALL WALK SEPTEMBER 2014 – In the Footsteps of Emperor Hadrian or …Looking for a Pile of (Special!) Old Rocks
Day 8: Carlisle to Bowness on Solway; 27km
If I had been told a week or two before setting out on this walk we would do it without any rain, would not need wet weather gear at all and we’d need suntan lotion I’d have laughed and thought you delusional (after all, at much the same time of year, two years ago, we pretty much swam the Coast to Coast, only a little south). When we left France only a week earlier the weather had started to look a little more optimistic, but I still left the hat there and packed a beanie and thermal that had been left from a previous trip. Of course I didn’t use it!
Another glorious sunny day as we wove our way out of Carlisle along the river Eden, it was a nice start, mostly easy walking with only small ups and downs. Past the church (right) that sits exactly where the wall used too be…
By later in the morning though the flat straight three mile “plod” through the salt marshes was tedious and when we later took a wrong turn (and extra half mile to the total) we just wanted to get to the end. A welcome ale (in my case G&T) at the Hope and Anchor in Port Carlisle after a number of earlier options proved closed (thanks to the honesty box refreshments we found that kept us going), then the final mile to Bowness and our last night with the views over to Scotland. The body felt today was far too much!
Day 7 Brampton to Carlisle: 18km
After a lovely evening at the elegant Oakwood Park Hotel (really a guest house but has a bar and does meals) we were picked up and delivered back to the track. Another sunny day, albeit chilly morning, the walk was a gentle stroll through pastures, meandering along the river and into the biggest town we’d seen since Newcastle. The walking was about as easy as walking can be—particularly given how blessed we were with the weather. Entering Carlisle through the park, our room wasn’t ready, so we wandered into town for a coffee. Even on Sunday afternoon a lot of shops in the mall were open. Mostly an old world feel, with ancient walls surrounding, but a touch of real working town here too.
Day 6: Gilsland to Wallston (Brampton) 14km
The rain that fell overnight is long gone as we head out for (unbelievably) our 6th rain free day! Gilsland is known as the spa on the wall and there is soon plenty of wall to see…though somehow we take a wrong turn and find ourselves herding sheep (and doing a rather good job I must say). For only the second time on the trip our GPS is out and we trudge along a road (downhill) to connect with the path—and plenty more bits of wall. Undulating country gives rise to mostly flat, easy walking. It’s Saturday and there are plenty of others, some out for day walks, mostly in the other direction. A few pretty streams, rest stops with picnic tables and in one place an honesty box with drinks available. No need to stop long, though we wait for our taxi transfer to Brampton (3 miles off track, as not enough accommodation at this point) at the Wallston tea house which was sadly closed. Our generous hostess at Oakwood Park Hotel makes us tea in a quaint lounge room, with hens, ducks and geese (and one large turkey, not Christmas dinner I hope) strolling around on manicured lawns outside.
Day 5: Gibbs Farm to Gilsland; 16km
Another gorgeous day, though rain had been forecast for later so we set out early—thanks to having no cooked breakfast and walking back to the track, which added to the original “short day”.
The first section continued in much the same manner as how we finished off yesterday, walking along a high ridge with lots of ups and downs. Then it eased off to more gentle undulating countryside and easier walking. The path took us past more wall and turret base, across pastures and quarries (one with a welcome icecream stop) before gently leading us into Gisland where we have a night at the pub, The Samson Inn.
Day Four: Wall to Steel Rigg (Gibbs Farm); 24km
They said it was only 19km…but we started and ended off track and we clocked up the extra km. And felt them. Until now it had been largely flat with the occasional gentle rise and fall. Not so today. The wall—and we finally got to see great chunks of it, remnants of towers (okay a few stones around the base)—was built along a ridge, and a ridge we walked. Up, down. And up again. Some steep parts, enough to feel it. In spots the wall was on top of cliffs and I can’t imagine the Scots bothering anyone there! Finally we were also off the road and felt truly in remote countryside. In sections grass is growing atop the wall, and you can see in stretch ahead, so some great photo spots too. Weather sunny and warm! Even got a bit pink on the shoulders. Now? Muscles getting a well-earned rest, washing in the machine and then the B&B transport us to the pub. Rumour had it, it might be a dry one…but fortunately that applied only to the nearby Visitor’s Centre. A great steak pie to be had at the Twice Brewed Inn!
Day Three: Corbridge (Robin Hood’s Inn) to Wall
After upsetting our B&B host by wanting breakfast at 7.30 (we only have cereal…), though if we hadn’t the Americans would have also (they had a cooked breakfast), we were dropped off back by the Inn at 8.30 ready for one of the shorter days of the walk. Ended up just short of 15km, a little off track at the end to get to Hadrian’s Pub in Wall (wonder where they got that name from…), it started foggy but as promised, this had blown off by lunchtime to another sunny day! I’m not expecting it to last, but it is nice!
Today was the day of stiles and gates (nine to get around one farm!), of pasture and woods, and though never far from the sound of cars and lorries, there was the sense of being in the countryside. We even got to see a lump of wall, though the “mound” which was apparently unique version of dirt piled up by Hadrian’s soldiers, looked well…like a lump of dirt to me.
Feet, back, legs all travelling well. But tomorrow is meant to be 19km and by my calculations (we start off a couple of kms off route and end the same way), it’ll be closer to 24km. In the days we did the end of the Camino, that would have been a piece of cake. But now? With rain, and apparently lots of hills? Guess we’ll have to wait and see!
Day Two: Newburn to Robin Hood Inn (Corbridge)
The morning dawns brilliant blue skies and sunshine; even more amazingly, this maintains most of the day! Today is a shorter one, a mere 15km, and surprisingly my aches and pains don’t seem too bad. It’s also largely flat, and mostly not on asphalt so the feet manage better today. We get to see a good chunk of Hadrian’s Wall – 3 metres wide but only a stone or two high. Better than where it has been covered by the road-which is mostly! A challenge for later archaeologists. We wind through the occasional village and mostly along fields, never far from the road and often having to block out the sound of cars and lorries on the A route (and overhead planes-seemed to be one every time I got the flip video camera out.
From Robin Hood’s Inn we are picked up due to lack of accommodation on the track (it is apparently the busy time but we haven’t seen many walkers, a few in the opposite direction, the 4 Oregonians who are with our tour company and are going slower than us so we will lose them in a couple of days when they take time off) and a Dutch couple. Mostly older people.
We’ve finished walking by lunchtime so have time to do a pub crawl to check out the beer gardens, as well as the shops in Corbridge. The most amazing meringues in the bakery—huge!
For the first time in two years (and post a disc prolapse and operation) I have donned by walking boots again and set out from Wallsend (near Newcastle-on-Tyne) to follow in the footsteps of Emperor Hadrian who put a wall across the top of UK in AD 122 to keep out the Scots…
Bad enough thinking about walking given the back. For the previous three weeks I have been constantly at the Ostepaths, Masseur and Pilates class. I can barely turn over in bed without the neck freezing and my back saying a loud I DON’T THINK SO! But there is also the little issue of the last walk (The Coast to Coast) I practically had to swim. England is green for a reason. Last week the area we are walking had top temps of 14 Celsius and yes, rain every day. Walking in Ireland (Way of Kerry) wasn’t much better. Third time lucky???
So we arrived last night in Whitley Bay (and had a great Indian feed, but the English group next to us ordered chips with their curry. Really?) and …it rained. Not going to let that stop us! An early start with a Ploughman’s lunch (and very good it was), a quick trip on the Metro …back doing okay so far…and there we were at Wallsend. yes, where the wall ends. A bit still left…
The path hugs the Tyne river and took us through Newcastle with its amazing series of bridges, ship building remnants of a glorious past in flour and coal, on and on. Nineteen kilometres. Feet a bit sore. Feeling good. Just thought I’d take a wee nap-no problem. But getting up? OMG. I am a hundred years old. I need a back op. My osteo. A masseur. HELP!
Husband ushers me (slowly) to the pub. He does a beer tasting. Me? Gin and Tonic. Brilliant. Why didn’t someone suggest that before I wasted money on all that healthy stuff? ….mmm….we’ll see tomorrow!
THIS BLOG FOLLOWS OUR WALK FROM CLUNY,
FRANCE TO SANTIAGO, SPAIN
ALONG A LESSER KNOWN CAMINO DE SANTIAGO DE
– 87 DAYS AND 2038KM
You can read a fiction (erotic romance adventure) along the same route- Expose by Simone Sinna, on Amazon here
We are doing Bordeaux to San Sebastian on the Camino in August – September this year! -Look Out for it then!
The Assisi walk planned sometime in the future when we have a spare nine weeks!
This is now complete for Cluny to Santiago – Enjoy
Day 87 (May 14 2011): Arrived at Our Final Destination–
It was nearly three months ago that we had set out, thinking maybe we’d make it to Le Puy (twice as far as we had ever walked before) and then thinking maybe St Jean Pied de Port. Instead we had made it from central France, leaving our own home just as the early pilgrims had, in the middle of a wintery February, up through the Pyrenees then via Camino de la Costa and Camino Primatevo to reach the cathedral where (myth has it) St James’s head is buried.
We had been told before we left we would get blisters. We were told to wear light boots’ we did, and no blisters resulted. We carried our clothes all the way, had over ninety stamps to prove our status. We had also been told we would cry when we got there.
There was a steady of stream of walkers (and cyclists) now, Santiago closing in, the final section along roads before hitting the old town and the final cobble-stoned stretch to the Cathedral. Musicians, buskers, serenaded us in. The Cathedral loomed ahead, stunning both inside and out. I dropped my pack and sat. And yes, I did cry.
It was and had been the most taxing physical thing I had ever tackled. It was also the most spiritual, most amazing experience, to rely only on my legs to take me 2038km (as our GPS told us). I had barely had contact with Australia, no emails, and only weekly contact with our children; they were the only thing of my ‘real’ world I had missed and thought about. I had thought a different place each night would become irritating and destabilsing, as sometimes touring in a car can be. I was wrong. I thought I might get bored, I was wrong. I thought I might have a religious experience and at first I thought I was wrong. But looking back at video of the monks chanting in Conques cathedral, now as part of a six minute video I have made, to a Gregorian chant, I think maybe I did. Certainly at a spiritual level the walk turned me upside down, though it has taken me time to realise just how profoundly.
I used to buy lots of clothes. Now I rarely do.
I used to work full time, obsessed with the next achievement. Before I left Europe, after the walk, I had negotiated part time and now work two days a week in my old job- one I still love and am passionate about, but I have time for other things now.
I had wanted to be a writer, started hundreds of stories left unfinished as a child (mostly only first paragraphs) and maybe three truly awful hand written manuscripts at about 14. Then two submitted manuscripts in my thirties (with good feedback from the writer’s manuscript assessment service), one of which got an agent and to the last phase at Random House.
After the Camino I sent in a manuscript for an erotic romance suspense I had finished during my sabbatical. It was accepted and there have been nine more under Simone Sinna. Now I have a psychological thriller Medea’s Curse due out January 2015, under my real name.
I can thank the Camino, and all it taught me.
I hope to have published, with my husband, Walk to the Stars, a fiction version of our Camino.
And next year, or maybe the year after, walk out from our house in France and this time follow the dove – to Assisi and then Rome.
Day 86: Rua 34km
It was a longish day and flat, through forests smelling of Eucalypt and reminding me of home. With only one more day to Santiago, home was now on my mind, but I had no urgent need to be there either psychologically or practically. I was still totally immersed in this walk, mesmerized by the chemin. If we’d had more time, I think we might seriously have considered walking all the way back to our house in France from where we started. I was feeling physically brilliant, muscular calves I barely recognized on the video clips we were taking, a little slimmer than normal (and I’m not big to begin with) and totally out of contact with social media, email and work. I was only missing my kids, and maybe the cat.
There was as yesterday, now on the Camino Frances, many more people, including those selling fruit and rinks along the way. Towns were full of pilgrims drinking and eating and waving to those passing. Occasionally the cycle path met us and these pilgrims whizzed past. To get the certificate one had to walk 100km – or cycle 200km. As we got closer, the church mindful of “cheats” – one would think that God would know, but I gather the Spanish put it on their CV to help get jobs, so it is so they can’t be hoodwinked – now required us to get two stamps a day. We noticed more than once people ducking out of cars into churches to get these stamps. Sad.
We ate well on our last night, knowing now that even if we had to crawl on our hands and knees we would get there, and felt strangely content. I didn’t know then what I know now: just how much this walk had changed me.
Day 85: Melide 28km May 12th
Today after studiously taking the longest hilliest Camino we could find (through central France, then the Pyrenees to the coastal route and finally to Camino primatevo) in part for the views but mainly to avoid the crowds, for our last two days of the Camino we joined the masses. In Melide the collide; here as well as those of us descending south west along the Camino Primatevo, are those coming from the East on the Camino Frances from St Jean Pied au Port; four weeks across Spain for them, longer for us who were last at St Jean on day 47 (April 4th) where we had a day off (and one other in San Sebastian). On the Primatevo with the improving weather we had got used to seeing the Chicas and our eight Sapnish men at dinner, and occasionally on the trail. But that hadn’t prepared us for the sudden onslaught of walkers and cyclists that confronted us wandering around Melide. The days walk had been longish, gently undulating; in a bigger town full of people there was more walking looking for our accommodation, drinks with a couple of cyclists and then pulpa with the Chicas. Mama Chica had been on the Camino Frances previously and knew where to go; a bustling restaurant with long tables and bench seats had pilgrims eating octopus all day and night it seemed. Crusty bread and steaming hot pulpa pulled from great vats, cut briskly and sprinkled with paprika. Never had octopus and rosé wine tasted so good.
Day 84 San Roman da Retorta 20km
It was a leisurely day walking where we bumped into the Spanish men in pairs at different times along the track. Very different to the start of our walk, we were now seeing people and talking each day about how they were finding the walking and why they were doing it. Mostly English was enough, though we had a hilarious non-conversation with a Spanish man, not one of the eight, who kept repeating Primatevo (the name of the path we were on) when I was trying to say our names. Turned out Primatevo is a name and it was his!
The day ended at a Albergue where we had coffee with a group of walkers; but it didn’t take reservations and was full as was the other we had tried. So for the first time we had a bit of a taste of the bustle and rush for beds of the Camino Frances. We weren’t about to walk nine kilometres extra off track so the owners of the hotel in San Roman, well used to this, came and picked up. It was weird being in a car after so long on foot! Town was definitely working town not tourist; just a place to sleep and eat (more non-conversation with Primatevo over dinner).
Day 83 Lugo 33.2 km May 10
A big day but not a hard one as it was mostly descent…right up until the end of the day, when we found Lugo was on a hill. One of the bigger towns we had been to we walked up past the hostel with everyone friendly and waving us in…only to spend an hour wandering around trying to find an information office to tell us where the hotel we had booked was. This included finding the seedier side of Lugo … We then found our hotel was, yes, back the way we had come and down the hill, outside the walled town. By the time dinner came we were too tired to contemplate another walk up so contented ourselves at a local hotel and an early night.
Day 82 O Cadavo Baliera 25.4km May 9th
Despite a hangover (how many bottles did those Spanish men buy us…?) I was feeling remarkably energetic. Even the inevitable climbs (smaller than some days but noticeable all the same) didn’t alter the skip. Nice weather, some off road trails hugging stone fences, forests and some towns, ones with cemeteries on the road (complete with mausoleums and yellow arrows for us on their walls!) were all part of the day. We were meeting other walkers on occasion and stopping for chats, exchanging stories. No one had walked quite as fare as us (later after returning home I found some locals who did London to Rome, much the same distance and much faster, but they has a certain wistful look when we regaled them with tales of literally having plenty of time to enjoy and soak in the scenery). I felt amazingly lucky, fit and healthy and walking felt like what I was meant to be doing. The end now only days away had us both wishing we could keep going.
Day 81 A Fonsagrada 25.7km May 8th
In distance it didn’t seem so much but by the end walking up to the town on the hill nearly killed me. The weather didn’t help, though seeing the Chicas walking under umbrellas was entertaining (who brings an umbrella on a long distance walk??? No wonder their bags were heavy and needed taxi transportation!) A day of climbing (what a surprise!!! …not). On the hills we traversed we became very familiar with the Wind Turbines and though I would have preferred the countryside without them, there was a certain graciousness about them that we got used to. Having arrived in a town of bars we finally found one with space for a crowd and had pulpa with the Chicas, and met up with the eight Spanish men who did two weeks of the Camino each year, seven walking and the rotating eighth driving with the bags. Not much English but lots of wine, singing and feeling good!
Day 80 Grandas de Salime 19.4km May 7th
We were now only a week away from Santiago but other than an occasional pang of ‘I’m not sure I want to stop’ we remained mesmerized by the chemin. I had never felt so fit and healthy in my life. The aches of my bunions had long passed, the knee had had its one flare up and behaved, I was eating less in the warmer weather and my weight was low and my calves wide! No distance worried me and nor amazingly did the hills. There was a smallish (400m) climb and a more careful (not point aggravating our knees!) descent of 900m along a winding path, spectacular views of hills and valleys shrouded in cloud, lakes and weirs and a stop at a bar for icecream where we found an Aussie bar tender. Weather? Well I was still using my wet weather gear but temperatures were mild. We found ourselves at the end of the day in an old town whose name made me think of Aladdin more than Spain. It was a small enough town that we soon bumped into the Chicas, our Brazilian friends, and joined with them for wine and pizzas. Their English was getting better- my Portuguese had a long way to go, well behind my scant Spanish.
Day 79 Berducedo 16km May 6th
It was a short day but never-the-less had a 600m climb, and as it was a day of wildflowers, it gave us plenty of time to enjoy them. It was perhaps the most magic day walking we had. The paths were mostly well marked and through gorgeous countryside well away from roads. There were picturesque views, from purple and yellow flowers to mountains covered in purple heather. One of the many lessons of the Camino – to be amazed by nature’s beauty. We stayed upstairs in the Albergue near the church while our Brazilian friends had the downstairs dormitory. We wandered into town to find everyone returning from a funeral, which filled the bars for a while! But after drinks we went to a famous restaurant for the region, specializing in slow food. Wonderful!
Day 78: Pola de Allande 27.5km May 5th
We aren’t finished with the hills just yet in seems! A day where for every up there was a down…and then another up! Six to eight hundred metres we enjoyed pleasant views over farm land before coming into a medium sized town, prettily located on a river. Our hotel (Nueve Allandesa) was more than reasonably priced, the room elegant and antique filled. The restaurant was a value packed five course…except I had to pass on the black pudding (it doesn’t taste any good no matter what country you are having it in). Better though- real coffee!
Day 77: Tineo 20.5km May 4th
There was a five hundred metre climb…(rule one of the Camino- there is always a climb). Today we walked through dairy country, following these cows for quite some time! Weather looked like it was going to turn wild, but passed us by. The windmills are part of the scenery here and though not as beautiful as nature, there is something about them that is easy to accept. Perhaps that is us now…each day brings something new, something different and we are open to it all.
Day 76 Salas: 22.3km May 3rd
Today after a wet start we had nice weather and all the variety that we had grown used to in Spain with regards to Terrain. N routes and under freeways, roaming around with our new Brazilian friends and making use of their Spanish (seemed to be their second language rather than English for at least two of them) to get directions when we were confronted with two opposing arrows and at another time when one official one was covered and a make shift one went elsewhere. As always we were in good hands (I suspect either way would get us there and the do-gooders were helping us with a short cut). Along country lanes and overgrown paths workman were removing trees that had fallen across the path; everyone was helping us getter closer to Santiago.
Day75: Grado 27km May 2nd
The first day of the primitevo started pretty much in the way we had become accustomed to; in rain. Because we were starting in the city centre, complete with old churches and a myriad of cobblestone streets, we had another common start; wandering around looking for scallop shells, or what was more common in Spain, hand drawn yellow arrows. We always felt somewhat at the mercy of these unofficial signs. In Australia we would be fairly sure some kids would have ensured we went around in circles. Happily this never occurred on the Camino. We did never-the-less take some time to escape the towns boundaries, and not before being approached by one drunk and a beggar, something we hadn’t seen to this point, perhaps because we had avoided large cities as much as possible.
The trail itself held enough delights from the previous century to soon make us forget this; shepherds clearing their cows off the path for us as they had for centuries, and the original cobblestone s themselves speaking a thousand stories long past.
This was the day where we met with the chicas, five Brazilian women (or rather four women and one chica, the daughter of the group leader). We were to see quite a bit of this group and over the next two weeks get much more of a sense of what the Camino Frances might be like. A lot of camaraderie and partying! The leader had done the full Camino Frances in the past and now led a group through a different section each year- it was the first for her 19 year old daughter. We met them at a lunch spot after a particularly long hill. Looking at thsize of the leader’s pack it was miracle she made it at all! Much later as we searched Grado (a sort of industrial average town) we found the oldest of the Chicas (late 50’s) at our hotel asking if we had seen the Chicas. We don’t speak Portuguese and she didn’t speak English but we worked it out. They made it eventually…but after this their packs went by taxi…
Day 74: Camino Primitevo Oviedo 17.5 km May 1
Today marked an end and a beginning; the end of the coastal Camino in truth had been some time ago but the days between the coast and Oviedo had some sense that in modern times some one had sort a way to connect and that the route may or may not have had any ancient pilgrims along it. Of course this is true of the whole route; often the true pilgrims took the fastest direct way, and that was where the freeways now were. Though in Spain there had been more freeways than I would have liked mostly the chemin and the camino avoided them. Occasionally there were moments of feeling the ghosts of our forebears, like in Conques where the path deviated massively to accommodate some (in ancient times) free food, accommodation and a blessing (the latter probably needed given the risk of starvation, infection and then being attacked by Moors or general riff raff. We had passed plenty of sites of pelerine hospitals in France but less so in Spain. I figured they’d died before they got here; of cold if nothing else. They wouldn’t of had the sort of superior equipment and clothes we had (to say nothing of the excellent accommodation and wine and food).
The beginning was of the oldest camino, the Primitevo, and as we came into Oveido (putting aside the roadworks which sent up onto bitumen wrestling for space with the cars) it seemed the perfect place to start. The old section is cobblestoned and our hostel was in the heart of it, a room (to ourselves) up stairs. After dumping our bags, as it had been a short day, there was plenty of time to explore the churches and shops. There were more tourists here, some but not all pelerins, so there were plenty of bars and restaurants touting for our custom. Now Santiago seemed no distance at all.
Day 73:Pola de Siero 29km, April 30
Despite the mammoth day yesterday, my feet felt no worse than they had any other morning. We felt bright, refreshed, and keen to walk. A day that was under thirty kilometres wasn’t worth worrying about. Though late spring the weather was still variable and we started with mist until the day cleared and there were hints of sun. I had become much more attune to the weather and all things in nature. A day chasing butterflies, taking in flowers and literally smelling the roses was now part of the routine. Now nature threw something new. Looking at the map I decided that there was a short cut and though signs were a bit dubious, off we went. Where we actually went I can’t really say, and whether or not it was a short cut remains doubtful. But the path took us high (yes, more climbing) above the road where we felt far from anyone. This was particularly important when we found ourselves essentially bushbashing (an Aussie-ism that the Spanish probably wouldn’t appreciate but it had been a long time since anyone had cleared this path. In the early mist with the sun pressing through, we found ourselves surrounded by a magical world of spider webs, stretching over acres of bushes, the dew on them glistening. I have never been a spider fan and it probably helped that the webs were a good deal more evident than the owners, but it was without doubt, spectacular.
With only two weeks to go until we finished, we were now heading inland to join the oldest camino (supposedly)- The Primateva- in Ovedio.
Villaviciosa 41.1 km
When I started this walk the thought of thirty kilometres in a day soon became a fear that took some overcoming. But I did it, and now 30km days were not unusual and I barely gave them second thoughts. But today was going to be 40 kilometres. My husband had given me a choice; two medium days or one hard and one light. This in itself wasn’t what made me choose the latter, it was that the former went with a hostel stop as no other accommodation was available. Early on we risked a couple of hotels (the Pic Priory on day nine a highlight) but we had never had to share a room. Early on this was because no one else was mad enough to be walking in the heart of winter, then the hostels had the option of our own room. This hostel did not, and by now other walkers were a common enough sight, and this hostel large and with a monopoly so we knew we wouldn’t be alone. Don’t get me wrong- the company would have been fine, but I can elbow my husband if he snores (I sleep badly)… the other occupants in a spared room weren’t going to be as easy to deal with. And I get up in the night and I didn’t have a nightie…
So the long day it was. We started at 7.30am. we walked along the sea out of Ribadesella and along the coast and then found we were going the wrong way. Not a good start, though the distance wasn’t great. Hills, yes got them. More sea. Under freeways, passing our fellow walkers who were already at the hostel, feet up, toasting us with beer. We were just over half way. Along freeways, not my favorite. Feet normally dying by twenty kilometres. Rests. Sore again. Time ticking by. Shit another five kilometres? You have to be joking. No he wasn’t.
We get in at 8pm. Exhausted. Thought I would never walk again. Until the second tapa and the first glass of wine… we did it! I can’t stop smiling. Over 41km, and while I am in no hurry to do it again, I know I can. In fact I think I can do anything.
Day 71 Ribadesella 26km April 28
The Camino continued to wind along the Spanish coast this time veering across meadows in order for us to take in a church, past pools full of fish and along roads down to finally take us to one of the larger sea side towns. Spread along the coast and across an inlet there was more people bustling into cafes and stores and we were less of a novelty than we had been in some places. The issue of a bigger town also meant it was harder to find where we were staying but we came in early enough to cruise along the streets until we found it. Seafood and rosé for dinner….naturally.
Day 70 : Celorio 32k Wed Apr 27th
More glorious Spanish coast though the weather was variable and there was still plenty of need for waterproof coats and equipment. A long paved road ensured we also remembered there were lots of hilly sections along the coast. One of the many benefits of the route though was also the access to fresh local seafood and we made the best of it. Dinner in town (along with the rosé) made the 32 km fade quickly into the background. Though feet still hurt after 20 or so, it only took a half hour for them to be as good as new.
Day 69: Unquera 29km, April 26
When we started this walk any distance approximating thirty km made me feel distinctly like not getting out of bed, or if I did, looking for a bus timetable. Now 29km seemed no longer worth worrying about. So much so that we weren’t leaving early anymore, just when we woke and got around to it. We no longer carried lunch either, and though I still needed a snack, both in and breakfast were light. The warmer weather meant our bodies no longer required so much fuel to keep us warm and we were walking I suspect far more efficiently. It had been a long time since I had had any serious twinge of any sort. Santiago was full steam ahead and damn the torpedoes.
Today’s walk included some of the history and reminders of being in Europe, and I soaked it in, mind only on today and where I was, now totally cut off from the world of social media, emails and worries. Husband checked in, I rang the children (grown up ones) once a week, smelt the roses (or equivalent) each day, and now knew how to live in the moment. As we looked at all the stamps in our Camino passport we felt pretty pleased with ourselves. As always we ended with a glass of Rosé and some seafood which wasn’t a bad moment either.
Day 68 Comillas 22.5 km 25.4
We left Santillana Del Mar the same way we arrived- in the rain. Despite this the village was so full of character and the hotel so good it will remain one of the highlights of the trip for me.
It was a nice day walking, as the weather improved a little, not too hilly and a good deal of coastline to enjoy. We were closing in on the time we would be heading more directly to Santiago and off the coast line so I was determined to enjoy every minute of it.
Comillas was a town just back from the coast line, and we stayed at Hotel Esmeralda, a casual hotel where we secured a double room which soon filled with wet clothes. The heaters were working so I had them on trying to dry off some of our stuff. As always I washed our socks- we hadn’t yet had to put on wet or dirty socks and nor had we had blisters. I was certain these facts were associated and wanted to ensure the trend continued!
The restaurant was empty but for us, but the owner and his 75 year old mother kept us entertained, luckily in English as our Spanish still had a long way to go!
Day 67 Santillana Del Mar 21.3km (24th April- Easter Sunday)
It wasn’t hard walking but the rain didn’t help. Nor specially scenic, with a lot of roads, train lines and following miles of pipes. At least with the yellow arrow we knew we were heading the right way!
That drizzly grey that wouldn’t let up. But arriving in Santillana early made up for everything. Both the town and the place we stayed (okay, we splashed out) meant the weather was very secondary. Maybe even helped for the visit to the Spanish Inquisition torture museum where the English translations at least left no room for misogynist ancient Inquisitors! The blurb about the chastity belt in particular…(Stephanie gets locked in the dungeon there in Expose…)
The hotel, Casa del Marques was small, old and beautifully restored, with a bedroom full of antiques, a balcony it was too wet and cold to use and a staircase carved in one piece from what must have once been a truly enormous oak. (I set one of my favourite scenes in Expose here…)
The other highlight was the soda fountains, or rather, cider fountains. Specific to this region, the cider was delivered from great height either by waiters or a help yourself in rounds of three from fountains. A good deal of cider splashed and got lost along the way, but it was loads of fun! Who cared about the rain?
We finished off with Cognac and hot chocolate in a divine library room at the hotel. This was how to live!
Day 66 Mogro/Boo de Pielagos 15km 23.4
One of the things we had been warned about on the Camino (aside from the race for hostel beds and bed bugs if you did the Camino Frances, hence why we didn’t) was the dogs. Early on in France we had the amazing interaction with a slip of a girl singing opera coming out of the fog being dragged by two huge mastiffs; since then there had been a string of dogs who greeted us enthusiastically as we entered and left their territory. Some looked like they were lining us up for dinner but by and large seemed to be more bluff than action. Today every house we walked past seemed to have a dog. At least they were on the other side of the fences…
The Spanish section of the Camino if nothing else was full of variety. While it wasn’t a long or difficult walk, we finished off getting a train. After the boat yesterday this really did seem like cheating, particularly as the neck of water we had to cross (and it was illegal to walk on the train bridge) could have been walked around, just so long as you didn’t mind an extra 20km or so.
We did mind, so train it was. Lucky we arrived in plenty of time. Speaking Spanish to a machine getting a train ticket proved challenging. I have no idea if whatever I bought was the right thing. It was short trip and then our accommodation a homey little hotel with, yes, a great bar…
Day 65 Santander 22km 22nd April
Though not a long walk the distance covered was significant- today we caught a boat. The books assured us this didn’t in any way take away our pilgrim status, but it did feel strange! Prior to the boat there was the 22km mostly on road and bitumen paths through a less rural Spain. Santander was one of the bigger places we stayed, and approaching it by water we had a great view of the hillside covered in hotels and residences, and docks along the waterfront. After a brief rest my husband dragged me out to find a place to eat; though he doesn’t speak Spanish sheer determination and gourmet in the blood led him to work out that there was a great sea food restaurant owned by the father of a famous Spanish footballer Iván de la Pena (I presume soccer, no idea really…).
This added several kilometres to our day as we roamed around dubious looking docklands, then decided it was too early (read deserted- the Spanish eat late) so we went back to the hotel. Before returning and to be fair, enjoying some great fresh fish courtesy of Papa la Pena, we were also lucky enough to catch an Easter parade. To be honest it was rather alarming…it looked like the Klu Kulx Klan had landed, as robed men in pointed hats matched the streets. As I passed a book shop and saw a book about the “amazing” Armada (no mention of its annihilation by the Brits, all we learnt at school…) and thought the Inquisition wasn’t so long ago…
Day 64 Noja: 15 km
Though we might have been much fitter than when we started, the option of a shorter day was not one to say no to. Much later I met a couple who walked much the same distance (the only people I know who had) as us, from London to Rome, over the alps (I guess they got the boat at Dover!). They had done it in less time and were a little dismissive of how slow we had been. But they had had a job to return to and time pressure. As I talked more, there was a sense of a whimsical wish from them that like us they had had time to linger. For them it would have been to enjoy churches and museums. For us it was a sleep in, leisurely breakfast and a long stroll along beaches. Soon we would be turning off the coast and I wanted to enjoy every moment on the beach, watching the gulls hovering over the ocean that lay like blue stain sheets, ripples yet to be straightened out. It was one of the greatest lessons for me of the Camino and one now two years later I haven’t lost. The scallop shell I bought in St Jean I was wearing and still do, was part of my life. I notice the seasons and I stop to smell the roses. On this day it was stopping to feel the sand gritty beneath our feet. One short hill and then in for dinner. After the glass of rosé of course.
Day 63 20 April 26km to Laredo
The weather continued to bless us and for the most part I was in t-shirt and had the bottoms off the trousers, turning them into shorts. The back pack was covered with last night’s washing which no longer dries overnight because the rooms don’t have heaters, We followed the usual yellow arrows placed on the roads, concrete boulders and anywhere else there was space, and it took us through forests, under freeways and then along the picturesque coastline and its rocky beaches and cliff tops beside and ahead of us.
My husband with his rudimentary Spanish had booked us accommodation- then we had the fun of finding it trying to read the Spanish maps in Spanish or French, As usual they had us down, but not as Australians or by name, just the date and with a grin, we were the people who had booked the matrimonial bed.
I was way too tired to be thinking about anything other than that glass of rosé, fish and chips and then sleep.
Day 62 (19 April) 28.2km to Castro Urdiales
This had to be one of my favourite days; given it was nearly thirty kilometres, it shows how far I have come since leaving Cluny! The weather was largely good (a little rain early on) which helped, but what wasn’t to like? This day in many ways typified the difference between this route and the French one (or for that matter the Camino Frances across the top of Spain). Lovely cliff walks with fabulous views of blue, boats and cliffs, occasional beaches, and the wonderful red brick road that was for joggers, cyclists and us…went for something like 20 km, under red bars, over freeways and through countryside. A wonderful piece of something different!
Then not sure if we took the wrong turn or not, but after a stop for a drink (when we don’t have long to go and its sunny, it’s a Gin and Tonic which may have contributed to getting slightly lost…) we were on a path along the cliff that disappeared and we ended up bush bashing into Castro Urdiales. But coming in over the hill to see it was rather magic… and this place is magic. At night the church on the water edge, lit up with an amazing fresco of Madonna and child, was one of only three “religious” experiences I had on the walk (Conques and Santiago the others). What a great town too- we ate more octopus than I thought possible, and savoured the fun and friendly Spanish life around us. This was what the Camino was all about!
Day 61 Portugalete 31 km April 18th (via Bilbao)
We must have been feeling fit. Rather than two shorter days and time to peruse the famous Bilbao Guggenheim we opted for the one long one. Though at another time I would have enjoyed a day of modern art, we were so focused on the walk, our identity so tied up with being pilgrims (of sorts) that we wouldn’t have done the Guggenheim justice.
I had been (briefly) to Bilbao before, en-route to a plane to London and it hadn’t left a particularly favourable impression. More, as I thought about it now, I recalled it being big and wondered how many kilometres of suburbs there would be.
Arriving was a pleasant surprise. The path designers had managed to divert walkers through the park so that the first you see of the town is from the hill above it. By the time you are the bottom you are in it well and truly.
The day was windy and warm, but by the time we were in Bilbao we were protected from the wind and it was hot. We made a detour past the famous museum but didn’t stop; the highlight was in fact the fruit shop where we indulged in huge luscious red strawberries. I can still taste them. The taste had to keep us going for what seemed like never ending hot pavements. Worse, our two maps disagreed, the yellow arrows and scallop shells evaporated and we had to make a decision. Piecing the instructions (one lot in French which we were okay with and the other in Spanish which was not our strength) we decided to follow the river. From the Spanish map it was clear that we were on a river and so was Portugalete. Our GPS was clocking up the km; I was not happy.
Sadly, we found out eventually, it was not the same river. More hot pavements and little about Spain that we were seeing to recommend it. Then we ended up completely lost next to huge freeway, wandering up and down a deserted walkway surrounded by high rise. I was even less happy.
But as always on the Camino, no matter how hot and bothered I was, no matter how much my feet hurt when we finally did find a scallop shell, the glass of Rosé and a tapa made for a short memory. I just hoped tomorrow would take us away from industrial sites and housing estates.
Day 60 Matsa
Though cool when we started the day and quickly warmed up so I made use of the zip off section of my trousers. Walking in shorts was a stark contrast to the winter we started off in and in made us all the more grateful for it as well as a constant reminder of beauty of nature.
Leaving Gernika we walked through more elegant streets than the industrial ones we had entered through, leaving through centuries old walkways. The final streets gave me a little of the Picasso I had been hoping for – albeit it the modern variety. This was to the be the first graffiti of much that would regale us. More urban certainly than the beauty of the French hills, but as I was easing into Spain, sunshine and a different Camino, I saw as much beauty in this and welcomed it.
Day 59 Gernika 17.7km
After a long day yesterday a shorter walk today was welcomed. There was still plenty of hills, a combinations of roads and paths around and through farms and, blessedly, more sunshine. Because the weather was getting warmer it meant that there was rarely heating now in out hotels, so no heaters to dry clothes. As we only had two “spares” in T-shirts and underwear, this meant that M.Sootie’s (the Frenchman who had given us our camino/chemin passports back in Cluny 59 days ago) advice re taking safety pins became vital. It mightn’t have looked glamorous but the t-shirt and underwear pinned to the pack and wafting in the breeze as we walked, was now a fixture.
Gernika was at first disappointing; no sign of Picasso and his famous painting or what inspired it, and more, the town seemed a fairly ordinary working one. But there was some parade on and the locals didn’t bother going back to work after their lunchbreak and the afternoon turned into a wonderful bustling enjoyment of sunshine, food wine and Spanish family life. Our first Tortilla was worth the wait…and the Rosé as always hit the right spot.
Day 58 Bolibar 30.8km (15 April)
After a mere 18.5km yesterday we did nearly double today. I had thought I was fit. But it took until the first wine this night (or maybe the second) to remember this thought. It was long- and very up and down. Ten hours walking! Leaving views of the coast behind we went through forests and farmlands, villages and then kept right on. The weather at least stayed mild and our first glass was outside the hotel/guesthouse, chasing the remaining rays of sunshine. And being remote they at least did us a real dinner, which was all I needed before falling into bed. At least it’s a short one tomorrow!
Day 57 Deba 18.5km (April 14th)
We were now as fit as we had ever been in our lives, and while it soon became clear that the rumours about the Spanish coastal route being hillier than the classic Camino Frances were more than rumours, we were not in the least daunted. The knee that had nearly stopped my husband in the long descent on the Inca trail (and had caused one day of pain for me) were no longer a problem. We walked steadily, if not fast, took few and only brief breaks, and welcomed each day and all it brought.
This day brought glorious coast line, whimsical looks towards England…and yes some hills. We were also getting used to Spanish seaside, here at least with towns built and lived in for practicality rather than their seaside beauty. This also meant that we were spared the tourists and Brighton type of tourist attractions I suspect are present in the southern Spanish coastal towns.
With the worst weather well behind us, we were also enjoying Spring and whether it was because our bodies were now working efficiently, or that we no longer needed fuel to help maintain our body temperature, our appetites plummeted. We tended towards light breakfasts (they were variable in Spain anyway) and often an apple and dried fruit and nuts (when we could get them) were more than enough to get me through the day. The trouble was, the Spanish eat their main meal in the middle of the day…and getting a proper dinner proved to be hard at times. We were told the Spanish ate late, which is true, but this created two problems; one we were too tired to wait up that late (and we wanted to be up early) and on the occasions we did, dinner could still prove a challenge because really the main meal for the day was over, and dinner, even if late, was light. This is the land of the Tapas after all. As out appetites decreased we just went with the flow; tapas would do!
Day 56 to G(u)etaria 13th April 27km
The weather is suddenly magic, the drizzle of yesterday and the fog of two days ago suddenly a distant memory as I strip to a T-shirt when I am walking, and soak in the brilliant sunshine. For the first time the reason we chose the coast walk is abundantly clear. Leaving San Sebastian we walk along the beach, and even the hill up and out can’t dim our enthusiasm. The blossom is out everywhere and the path takes us along the coast line, along cliff tops and then the final long path to Getaria with the sea crashing onto rocks only metres away.
Getaria is full of restaurants; we book into a small family run hotel and wander down (and then up…) the streets to select where to eat. The menu is all the same! They have outside BBQ’s and its fish…or fish. Suites us fine. The fresh fish is delicious!
Day 55 April 12th San Sebastian: Rest Day
For the second (and what will be last) time on the Camino we both have a rest day to enjoy San Sebastian. It’s my birthday; we are staying at the Hotel Maria Christina, which felt odd arriving at in walking gear and back packs (it’s not that sort of hotel!) though the staff were very polite. The previous night we hit the Tapas bars- ecstasy! The range and tastes are amazing and not expensive. I never want to leave! Then the shopping which is magic- mainly for my daughter’s birthday and I will have to ship it all home so a long queue follows at the PO where no one speaks English so I’m not sure it’s ever going to arrive. Tonight we eat at Arzak- the local paper has an article and the female chef (daughter-father combo I think) has just won a prize. She comes and talks to us and luckily speaks English having just been to Aus! The food is sensational! After these two days I’ll need to walk it off…if I can get out of bed tomorrow…
Day 54 Route to San Sebastian 26km
This was our first day on the coast route. After a day of oysters and a walk on the beach and tapas in Hondarribia, I was up early and would have been enthusiastically ready to hit the road, except for the weather. It was raining. Steady, cold, grey rain. Oh well, we were used to this; into our wet weather gear and off we went, leaving through the castle walls and up a path (yes, it is still up in Spain…) and off along the coast.
Well I presume the coast was there. Out map suggested so. The GPS had blue to our right. But we never saw it. Not once. Thick fog made it hard to see more than ten metres in front of us let alone a vista. The yellow arrows (more ubiquitous than scallop shells) at least were large and prominent. The path was steep and narrow in spots and we had to keep our wits to stop from slipping and getting lost. There was no time for sight seeing. At one stage I had to dig my hands in to pull myself up. I vaguely recalled reading that this section was hillier than France. Oh shit.
We passed (and occasionally got close enough to see) towers from wars long passed. I imagined Spanish soldiers watching the Armada leave and then the British boats returning (no idea if this happened, only know the British side of the story). As we picked our way along the paths we heard tinkling of bells. Even the horses had bells around their necks and given the fog I could understand why. My hands were cold, I was wet, and this was not fun…
The fog finally lifted as we came to the top (yes more hills) of a hill and before us lay San Sebastian, nestled into two coves with beach lined cafes. Okay, fun was ahead.
Day 53 13km Hendaye – Hondarribia. SPAIN AT LAST!
I am back walking again, now refreshed. I want to walk to the sea, and from here I am anticipating with some excitement the left turn at the ocean and then the route along the coast to Santiago. It’s only a short day, so we are in no rush. The weather is till nice and we meander along, still with some hills to negotiate. Ahead of us we are catching sight of the ocean until finally we are on the outskirts of Hendaye. It’s a beachside town and it seems a little weird having started in the centre of France to now be seeing ocean. We walk in the sand, I souvenir a tiny shell, and then we celebrate with oysters and Chablis for a late lunch to farewell France. Then we take our first (of which there will be more, legitimately as we’ll find out) of our boat rides and cross to Spain across the bay.
If there is customs they were at lunch. We arrive and check in top a wonderful hotel (read more in Exposé – Stephanie stays there) in the old part of town. After a rest we can’t wait any longer (we were told not to go for tapas until ten but its 8.30 and we’re starved) and we hit the tapas bars. Oh wow! They are great, diverse, fun and cheap. A lot of difference in one boat ride! I sleep well dreaming of all the Spanish wine and tapas ahead of me. And of course the beautiful coast line.
Day 52 GR 10 through the Pyrenees from St Jean to Hondarribia : Birriatou 9.4 27km …including some detours
The rest of our trip all the way to Santiago is now looking very real. Though we have travelled all the way from central France, it is still daunting. All the weeks on the road and still weeks to go. We are on the GR 10 and tomorrow will join the Camino that comes down from Paris through Bordeaux and the Camino del Norte or the Costa route will begin. I still feel I am not quite ready to let go of the holiday and though I enjoyed the amble yesterday the thought of a big day isn’t enticing, particularly when I think of Andre saying we could take a train and still be legitimate- it is only the Camino that counts! So I slack again- my last day of rest, but my husband insists on walking. He just takes a day pack, sets off early and I linger guiltily over breakfast, grab a taxi and cruise into Birriatou. There is a family function in the square I watch for a while, then settle in with a gin and tonic and read some French. It has improved a lot but I am all too aware that in another day I’ll be having to speak Spanish!
My husband is late. Very late. Ten and a half hours walking … lots of hills and poorly signposted. Luckily he had his GPS because he managed to make it into Spain without knowing it and had to find his way back. He has more than one G &T. As the photo shows…it isn’t always that clear where to go!
Day 51April 8th: Sare, a gentle 12km!
After a few days off I am keen to get walking again, particularly given the glorious weather (unseasonal everyone says, but we aren’t complaining!) and that today is a mere 12km! The boots are familiar friends and easier to put on than try and carry attached o a pack as I have for the last two days while husband has been walking with just a day pack.
Having enjoyed the scenery from the balcony restaurant on Hotel Ostape two days ago I am pleased to be on the road and seeing the Pyrenees for myself. We are high but today’s route is kind. Not too many hills, not too long, and a lovely place to stay and eat at the end. And even more special, we catch our first view of the sea! All the way from central east France we have almost made it to the coast! What’s not to like?
Day 50 6th April : Ainhoa 29km
We are still officially off the Camino and looking at today’s GR 10 route I see a steep descent and can’t quite rid myself of the need to rest and recover. I’d have quite happily stayed longer at Hotel Ostape; the weather continued to be magnificent and a late breakfast and a swim had so much appeal I took this up. My husband however was up early and walking. He had thought that the 4km to the hotel would decrease this day’s route but no such luck- he has to back track it all. I pass him in the cab and feel guilty- briefly.
From the photos I see the territory is beautiful but also challenging. The most challenging thing was believing that someone thought it was a good idea to put three full size crosses complete with bodies writhing in agony, on the top of one of the mountains. I guess you can’t account for taste.
Ainhoa is lovely. I explore the town, enjoy the time to think and let the body wonder why it’s got it so easy, then after a five km steep descent my husband joins me for a glass of Rosé in the sunshine and we have an amazing top quality meal. Tomorrow I vow to walk to justify it.
Day 49-Bidderray 6th April 26km: The Pyrenees
Having made it to St Jean where we had originally thought we would finish, we took an extra day to regroup, enjoy the sunshine and the depth of history at this gateway to the Pyrenees and Spain. But we had decided to continue. Pouring over maps we decided quickly that the Camino Frances wasn’t for us – but the coastal route was. The Camino Frances is the commonly used route and the one in The Way (Martin Sheen) and in a number of nonfiction books. They all agree that there are lots of pilgrims, not so enthusiastic Spaniards and hostels you have to race to and can only hope to avoid the bed bugs. This had no appeal to me, even if there was lots of flat sections (which were also boring). The Pyrenees meant Grand Route 10 to the coast where we could pick up the Camino taken from those coming down through Bordeaux or who arrived by boat. It was the hilliest and hardest. Naturally we took it.
I wasn’t feeling ready to go as the evening before came to an end. The religious pelerin with whom we had stayed had talked about the GR 10 disparagingly, that it wasn’t the Camino and therefore if we wanted to do the Coast route we could just take a train. My husband wanted to walk, but the first day was going to be two days combined and on the road and I decided to leave him do it. I took a taxi.
I arrived at our destination thinking I was in heaven. When my husband arrived he did so probably more literally. Having after a long uninteresting walk, he arrived into Bidderay only to find out hotel was four kilometres away- up.
Hotel Ostape is a resort owned by a French chef (read more about it in Exposé) we got our own golf buggy to tour the very hilly terrain, a pool (I had to buy some bathers for the unseasonably warm April) and dinner on the terrace looking out across the beautiful Pyrenees. It was magic.
There would be time for the hard life of a pilgrim…later.
What can one say? We did it. When I had left Cluny there had been a realistic expectation that we would have stopped at Le Puy. Instead, over a thousand km and 47 days later without a break, we arrived where most people begin their Camino. We had already walked further than the Camino Frances, from here to Santiago.
The day was beautiful. A gorgeous spring day with birds singing and flowers blooming at the roadside. The entry into St Jean was everything it should have been. You enter high, passing the cities ramparts and down the cobblestone streets, past the Camino office where our details are recorded. Tiny shops full of Camino t-shirts, chocolates and wine line the streets. But for their contents nothing has changed here in centuries.
I am grateful for one change. The pharmacy. For the last few days I have been bloated and unwell. I am certain I have Giardia. Unfortunately I am allergic to the only treatment I know of.
The pharmacist and I pore over his bible. It is, of course, in French. But Latin and medical names tend to transcend language. He has looked at me sceptically (could be the atrocious accent) but when he finds it he is excited. There is another treatment, a one tablet only version. The name is suspiciously like the one I am allergic to. But I don’t have much choice. I down it and tell my husband to scream for adrenaline if he can’t rouse me.
We book into a top hotel where we will have dinner tomorrow night after the pill has hopefully worked, and enjoy muscles in white wine and a rosé outdoors by the river. We feel fitter and healthier than we ever have and we look at each other in the same instant and know.
‘Santiago’ we toast and laugh. We are only half way.
Day 46 Ostabat 28km Sun 3/4
There’s only one place we can find to stay and even though we will have to share the bathroom at least we’ll have a private room. We are now walking in Basque country and there are reminders in the graffiti on the walls in towns and tunnels in case we hadn’t known. The country itself is rougher underfoot, steep slopes and sheep with narrow faces and thin but sturdy legs. We move through farmer’s fields across styles and through gates. Basque country of not, the scallop shell continues to faithfully take us closer- to St Jean or Santiago we were still not committing.
We watched shepherds guiding sheep through narrow streets as they had for centuries, and then as we closed in to our destination, were greeted by the St Jacques walking club. On a day walk. When we told them we had started in Cluny there was much excitement and chatter. We were congratulated and they stood in two line, poles overhead in an arch, cheering as we went through. It was a special moment, one to make 28km seem little, and indeed, 45 km important, but…we both felt it. Neither of us would feel we deserved this accolade unless… we continued.
Despite the mild weather it was freezing cold as the sun went down over Ostabat. And one of the gas bottles had gas. Our host who took our money (admittedly not much) deposited a bottle of marc and said it would keep us warm. There were a few of us. A French couple, one of whom walked and the other who took the car, dog and guitar and a few others we hadn’t met, some with a little English. One knew there was a hotel open that did dinner. We left the dog and walked up the hill.
We brought the unfinished wine home with us (the Marc would have killed us). With it, the guitar and my husband’s harmonica we managed a few songs (I sadly have a bad memory for lyrics and my husband who knows them all can’t sing to save his life) before falling into our single beds.
I was wearing my thermals and fleece and my teeth were still chattering. As I crawled into my husband’s single bed, certain I would die of exposure, I was not thinking warm thoughts about the owner and his Marc.
Day 45 Lichos 30km Sat 2/4
Another long day – 30km- and it is a distant memory that this was ever a problem. Yes we are still sore at the end of it but it no longer had the power to terrify me. You just take your time. You get there. You recover.
We pass through lightly wooded forests and see strange tree houses with long ladders. Too high to let your children climb. We eventually decide they are for pigeons. Racing we presume but this is out of our realm of expertise. We see no one and no pigeons. Just signs to be quiet and these strange structures.
We are staying tonight in a B&B. Not in the book. The first one in the book recommended them. Friends.
They are standing by their fence looking out for us. Monsieur Basque (we could understand very little of what he said, either local dialect or accent it was hard to tell) and Madame Sweet. They were so excited to host us they couldn’t stop talking. Their enthusiasm was delightful and overcame a lot of the language problems. They showed us their home bottling of fruits and cassoulet in the garage and brought out the unlabeled bottle of wine from their friend (all of the French have an unlabeled bottle from a friend, even Parisians). We eat and sleep and shower with care the next morning. It’s one of those we ‘fell like we are in their homes’ experiences. I guess the good things come with catches.
Day 44 Abbaye de Sauvelarde 32.5km Fri 1/4
But the walk though long – OMG 32 km!!!- was not so hard, and passed as effortlessly as the wisps of cloud, lost on the beauty of the vistas that constantly assaulted us. The Pyrenees seemed tantalisingly close, at our finger tips at each turn ready to take our breath away. In T-shirt and shorts the weather was magic.
There were hills and woods, but they too brought magic, a huge frog paralysed by snake venom, disappearing into the serpent before our amazed eyes. I felt I was in one of those science and nature episodes, but there alive without having to wait for the time photography to capture nature at its most brutal.
Then we stayed at the Abbaye, not quite the Pic Priory nor Conques Abbaye, and the accommodation basic and hostel level for all of the private room, but we ate outside, heard the tale of woe from the proprietors who hadn’t been able to make a go of it and would moving on (in French, my understanding was really getting much better) and drank in the experience. Just in case we were ending it all soon.
This was not my finest day. Upset stomach, sore throat and the day finishes off with a bad Madiran. Feeling bad is not enhanced by walking- by knowing you have little choice. Of course had I been really sick my husband would have been on the phone changing bookings, but we are closing in on Ste Jean and the border and I didn’t want to stop now. Besides, feeling unwell in a hotel or B&B just isn’t the same as being at home in front of the TV. It was a long day which didn’t help. The weather was mostly fine and mild and the positives were the pilgrim tree and messages from L’Alchemist although one of these was Tais-Toi (Shut Up)! We saw a wild pheasant yet to make it to someone’s table and a peacock presumably owned by the local farmer. We did get to cook for ourselves but in this B&B the heating had yet to be turned on and it was cold- so early to bed! Next morning we were seen off by Mme Dunk, hence named because of half her toast disappearing into the world’s largest cup of coffee over breakfast. We have found that at French B&B’s when you are asked about what you have for breakfast there is only one answer- coffee or tea. The former is served in a soup bowl.
Day 42 Maison Marsan 22.5 km Wed 30/3
The chemin continued relentlessly through the farmlands, bringing each day new experiences. But every day was bringing us closer to the French- Spanish border, and suddenly, today for the first time we saw it. There in the distance were the snow-capped Pyrenees.
We saw also a new animal- two of them- that had me scouring the internet using my husband’s computer and temperamental dongle. I decided it was an obscure animal introduced to France for its fur that went wild. If not it was a very large weasel or stoat, neither of which I had seen off the pages of Wind in the Willows.
Our journey was encouraged along by quotes from the Alchemist…I had read it and Paul Coehlo’s take on the camino but I hadn’t quite reached his level of spirituality yet. Accepting the inevitable- the chemin- I had acheived though.
We arrived at our accommodation to find we had a palace, or rather a walkers farm variety. Three bedrooms, kitchen laundry and spa bath. I was in this is seconds.
We bought the ingredients for dinner and cooked ourselves. Surrounded by ducks we ate confit and drank local wine and again decided France must surely be the most ideal place to walk. We were already Francophiles, perhaps we were now cheminophiles. Would though we just walk the French section and condemn the Spanish section as ‘too busy’ and ‘too common’? We still hadn’t decided. But there was a lure in those mountains and we both felt it.
Day 41 Aire sur L’Adour 28km Tues 29/3
I’m tired. It’s a week until St Jean Pied de Port where we either finish or at the very least have a day off. Neither of us want a day off yet, because, well what would we do? We’re walkers, not tourists. We can’t carry a book and though occasionally I have devoured one when found in English, I am certainly not about to carry one.
I think in retrospect my ankle decided to give way in protest. I was way too cocky about how my body kept recovering, how well I was doing for a middle aged academic. Okay, I go to the gym but honestly, whatever happens on those machines bears no resemblance to the real world. Trust me. There had been a lot of uneven territory and my boots didn’t have ankle support so maybe this was the ‘I told you so’ from the die hard tragics of heavy boots and twenty kilo packs.
But by the time we got into town I was in pain. Quite a bit. My husband didn’t tell me, but the accommodation was still another km- up (of course). We had thought we’d eat in town, a nice town full of nice shops, but he wisely decided to buy food so we could cook without any more walking. He deposited me in a bar and went off.
It was a nice warm day. The last part of the walk had been a drag through the outskirts, the least favourite of all the walking experiences and inevitable in bid towns (Spain was to be way worse). I all but collapsed on an outside table and eventually a waiter came to see if I was alive and able to pay. I ordered a gin and tonic. To date these had been hard to come by, a quintessentially British drink and I wouldn’t put it past the French to not stock it for precisely that reason. Even if it meant loss of custom. But this waiter sensed my pain (or Aussie accent) and brought one with loads of Gin and loads of glace (initially I think he thought I wanted icecream in it. Probably just the accent).
After the second of these, with the gin in me and the ice on my ankle, I was a new woman. When my husband returned with food I all but skipped up the hill. I was even mellow through our hosts discussion of the religious significance of the walk (it turned out that when my husband had booked, the grilling about the luggage wasn’t because he was trying to sell us a luggage service, but rather he wouldn’t have let us stay had we not been carrying our own stuff!).
In any event, his religious concern and best wishes and the pictures of Jesus over us that night did some good. My ankle was as good as new the next day.
Had this day followed the Cele we may not have ever completed the walk. This was the day we probably deserved having started in winter, but had until now escaped. We had had cold, fog, ice and even snow. It had rained. But it hadn’t rained like this, and there is a reason France is so green.
One of the saving graces was that it was a ‘mere’ 20 km. Believe me, this is better than 25 or 30. But the last few km it was raining so hard we could barely move forward. We had good gear, but by the time we arrived in Nogaro (what was with this name? Some Japanese connection?) we were soaked, inside and out. The plastic lined pack meant our change of clothes was okay, but nothing else was.
Our hotel room was one of the smaller we had. Between that, the shower we soaked in that adjoined the room, the heater going and the sheer amount of moisture on us, it felt like someone had hosed the room down. The walls, everything was wet. And it smelt- well funky. We ate downstairs because it was still raining. Luckily the kitchen was open because I wasn’t going anywhere. When we left the next morning I looked in dismay and the tidal river we left behind and hoped no one needed it that day.
When I look back on the video we took I know it rained a lot. I was often in and out of wet weather gear. But this was the only day like this. Later, when I walked the coast to coast in England, 13 of 16 days were like this. Yes, we were blessed on this walk.
Day 39 Eauze 16.7 Sun 27/3
From the canola fields of the previous day we now walked through vineyards. Given much of our time in France prior to this walk had been in Burgundy and Bordeaux sampling wine, and trips into Beaujolais from our house, it had been a long time without seeing what we had considered was essential France. Now in Spring there was green across the fields of gnarled aged vines, and we paid them silent homage for what we drank each night.
Between and around vineyards we went through gullies and bursts of trees, but mostly we were in the open, France in the hand of the farmers and vigernons. They seemed to be managing well.
Eauze was a town like many other, but after a short day we arrived in time for a late lunch, and ate in a sheltered outdoor setting looking into the towns courtyard. This was in part by choice, but in part because our boots were muddy and give the time we wanted to eat first and wash and rest second. After this we still had time to wander through the tourist shop and regard some of the Abbey’s curiosities, before dinner in a pleasant little restaurant. It wasn’t busy but it was nice to not be eating alone. France and the Chemin were wakening from a winter slumber.
Day 38 Montreal du Gers 20km Sat 26/3
The chemin was now taking us through farming country. There was no sense of wilderness here, any woods small and merely breaking up the fields. But there was still a sense of the ancient, that the farms here had been ploughed and planted in much the same way for centuries. The tractors might have been new, a welcome addition we were sure when regarding the huge chunks of brown soil waiting to be more finely broken down for planting, but the crops and soil were as old as Europe and for a while we were pelerins from times gone by.
We were swallowed up into fields of golden canola, wavering in the wind as the path wove us between fields. We marveled at higher points at the sheer beauty and though they weren’t sunflowers I was reminded briefly of Van Gogh whose paintings had been of land not so far to the east of where we were. Had I been a painter I would have wanted to stop and covered canvas after canvas. Instead the golden stalks whispered into my brain and painted a picture there, where I can return in an instant, sometimes unbidden when I drive past such a field now, or in a lazy warm spring day when I long for peace and the calm that only the camino brings, this is a place to which I return.
We were now into Armagnac territory, and our hosts for the night were farmers, her from her family a heritage of the wine that her husband shared with us as we talked in English. He was Dutch, a puppeteer who had travelled the world with his puppets. These were his heritage, his father’s possession and wisdom, and one which he had used to give information to the resistance in the war in Holland, right in front of the Nazis. It made for a good story and he was both excellent host and story teller.
Day 37 Condom 27.8 km Fri 25/3
Today’s route gave us another choice. It was a shortcut so as far as I was concerned, no choice was required! La Romieu by all accounts was worth a visit, but next time, by car perhaps.
We left Lectoure early. It was going to be a reasonably long day (not made any shorter by wandering around looking for scallop shells) and we liked to get in early and savour some of the afternoon. Despite the previous evenings dessert, I was starving. As we went past the bakery the early morning perfume dragged me out. Straight out of the oven, piping hot and butter oozing everywhere, I was delivered the most prefect pain aux raison every made. I can still taste it. It was heaven.
Later in the day, perhaps because our gastronomic senses had been revived at the restaurant, we went into equal (well almost) ecstasy over a mandarin. Food had taken on a new meaning. We have always loved good food, but now simple food, food our bodies needed and that we had earned, tasted so very much better.
Condom is a big town with varying legends about whether there is any association between the name and its English meaning. If so, it was much later. Its large Cathedral and giant statues of the three musketeers are probably what the locals would prefer it to be remembered by. We also remember a great pizza. The stomach wins again.
Day 36 Lectoure 24.7km Thurs 24/3
St Jean Pied de Port and the French border no longer seem so far away. We watch our progress on maps and boards in villages that show proudly that they are on the Chemin St Jacques and wonder at and celebrate our progress. Today there are long stretches through fields and though there are hills there are less fearsome and we are less scared. I have now in my head a ringing truth. I can walk, I will get there. I think back to how slowly I tackled the first hills in the blistering cold and fog. I am faster now, but if I need to, I can slow and I will get there. Anywhere.
The warmth has brought new bars open and we sit in the sun late morning and enjoy a sirop before walking on. The bar owners beautiful sleek black spaniel decides to join us despite our plees and stern looks. We cross busy roads and so does he, my heart is in my stomach watching him and I pray he makes it home safely. He comes with us all the way to Lectoure, more than ten km.
We sit by a lake and eat bread and cheese and salami for lunch and our new friend flops beside us. The birds are now loud and active, the flowers blooming and it is like a different time and place to only four and a half weeks earlier. It is wonderful to live in the moment, and these moments are especially rich with colour and sound.
Lectoure. Like so many of these towns, is on a hill. We pass the cemetery on the way up, full of flowers and lined by pine trees. It is a long slow climb and when we disappear into a hotel- the classiest we have stayed in to date (even if it is called Hotel Bastarde!), I guiltily farewell our friend and wish him well. We eat in style. Pre-dinner drinks in the courtyard bar and then a fine meal in the French tradition. I squeeze in dessert. If anything I am still losing weight so I do so without a hint of guilt and rather think that people should do the Camino rather than join weight watchers.
Following on from the 30km break through we are destined to have another. My husband has grimaced and pored over the books but in the end can’t find closer accommodation. It looks like it might be quite a bit over 30km and my feet are unhappy just thinking about it. But through some good luck we were alerted the previous night to an alternative and we take it. It ends up keeping the total under 30, and better still, we walk for much of the morning along a canal. Beautiful, different to anything else to date, and blessedly flat. The sun shines, we find some delightful French day-walkers to practice our French with, and life is truly rather good.
This night we are in a B&B run by a British couple. It’s nice being able to speak English and they are pleasant and tell us all of the local history. They are clearly part of the local ex-pat group even though they speak French. They had retired to France like so many Brits largely for the weather and so their money will last longer, rather than an inherit love of the French. They don’t seem too keen on the local Dutch either.
This area we are told, was rife with resistance fighters in the war. As I have cried my way through Schindler’s List, Boy in the Striped Pyjamas and The Diary of Anne Frank (books and films, to name just a few) and once wrote a story about Violette Szabo a martyred French resistance fighter, this interested me. All the French towns we walked through had war memorials. Many lost in WWI, few in WWII as they gave in early. I am the mother of a son. I get this. In the next village, our hosts told us, the Germans took 20 or so women and children and hung them outside the Mairie. This shakes me. I have seen this in films, read about it happening. But we are walking daily past Mairies. It suddenly brings it very close to home. I wonder how the German walkers cope, what reception they get.
Luckily we eat in the restaurant opposite. I say this because the British are not renowned as chefs, not this generation anyway. We are the only guests but the owner happily opens up for us. The walking season is still a way off he says. Soon. We are happy to take the good weather and not have to share or fight off other would be walkers who might want our rooms. Here there is a shortage of accommodation so it could have been a problem. We consider ourselves lucky and smart for leaving when we did, and wander back over to the other side of the street to bed.
Day 34 Moissac 30km Tue 22/3
The day had to come, and it finally did. The day I had to crack the fear of the thirty km mark. I was in a positive enough mood. I had been walking strongly and no hill had again reduced me to tears. I felt strong, was certain I could do it.
This didn’t mean it was easy. My feet, unlike my bunions, still protested after 15-20km. At one stage it looked like being even worse. A French farmer had a large sign out saying basically anyone walking on his property would be shot. I didn’t take this lightly. I knew a friend of a friend killed when he camped on a French farmers land. Trouble was our map and the GPS both said it went through his field, and any alternative meant another five kilometres. Later we found several had done this. We walked up and down the road anxiously and then dived across the field. No buckshot followed us mercifully.
I knew my feet would be fine by morning but that didn’t make the pain at the end of the day any easier. There had been rumour that this hotel, on the river, did massages. Alas, only in the mornings. I wouldn’t need one then. Worse, the hotel was a km out of the centre and neither of us felt like the full French catastrophe proudly advertised on the board. Five courses? Fois Gras? Not walkers fare. My stomach protested loudly. Louder than my feet.
So we eased our poor feet into runners and walked gingerly back into town. It proved the right decision. All the walkers – and there weren’t many of us- seemed to have aggregated into the one bar. A decidedly non-French bar that did – OMG – Margaritas, Nachos, and burgers with fries! French food is wonderful but this after so long of a French diet was heaven. Better still it was cheap. Jean-Marc of the buggy joined us and if my feet even hot the side walk on the way home, after several Margaritas, I never noticed.
Day 33 Lauzerte 25.5km Mon 21/3
The weather continued to be kind to us, and on longer days in particular, with an extra hour or two on the track, this was appreciated. The chemin took us over miles of farmland stretching forever, fenceless fields that took on a very different shape to the early days out of Cluny. We walked and talked, but mostly listened and watched the chemin around us, savouring France in a way that we never had on any of the many previous trips.
My ear for French I noticed improving. I had pretty much given up any hope that I shall ever speak the language well, but after several tries at language courses and a bit of homework I have enough grammar and vocabulary to read basic articles and carry on my side of a basic conversation (okay the French person would have to be able to cope with a bad accent and words in the wrong order and wrong tense from time to time). I am also brave or stupid enough (especially after a wine) to ramble on regardless- except for one thing. I can never make head or tail of what is said back to me and this unlike my bad French, I find acutely embarrassing. There are only so many times you can say ‘encore’ and ‘lentment’. But this time in France, where as usual I did a lot of the shopping, and got to listen to the many B&B Madames, I was finding I was picking up more, and had more natural guessing ability than my husband. It was a small improvement that of course disappeared as soon as we crossed the boarder into Spain, but for the moment I enjoyed it.
On this day we met a French walker, an ex-public servant, retired early on a full pension. He was towing his luggage on a cart, something which inspire a future novel but we didn’t know it at the time.
Lauzerte was at the top of a very steep hill. We were staying in another Gite (with single room) and cooking for ourselves. The supermarket was at the bottom of the hill. We decided one walk up was enough and bought supplies, but given this included chicken, vegetables and a bottle of wine, it didn’t make the walk any easier. I was more than happy to find our accommodation and off load it all. But we still had enough energy for a walk (even further up) into town and look around a lovely old town before coming back for a pre-dinner drink in the sun and a robustly tasty and fibre filled dinner.
Day 32 Lascabanes 24.6km Sun 20/3
If the scenery itself wasn’t varied enough- and generally it was- then the variety of towns and places we stayed certainly were. We weren’t overall fans of the B&B’s though this was mainly if the room was in the middle of the home thus giving us little privacy, or we had to eat with Madame which may have been good for my limited French, but was far from relaxing. On the other hand we were largely avoiding hostels (Pic Priory being a worthy exception) because I decided I was too old to not have my own space. I like to sleep and other people snoring weren’t going to add a positive to the experience. I also tend to go to the bathroom at night and as we weren’t carrying pyjamas this would have created its own problem.
Coming across fields into Lascabanes we were looking for a new form of accommodation- a gite. Many of these hadn’t been opened but as we were now heading into walking season many were starting to open their doors. This one provided our own room and bathroom (single beds) as well as dinner.
The Swiss couple pulled up next to the gite as we arrived and invited us to join them for a drink. On the picnic table we enjoyed the last rays of sunshine and drank wine and talked. Their English was excellent and as we hadn’t met many walkers it was a nice change. A few others were to join us for dinner, as did the Swiss, giving themselves a day off cooking, including one male lone walker and two others. They were French and mentioned our pressured pelerin from the previous day. Apparently he was Australian. Typical. The lone male was nursing feet covered in blisters. He was only on his third day. I thought of M Sootie and thanked him for his advice. I rather doubted this young man bothered to wash his socks.
Day 31 Cahors 18.5 Sat19/3
Day of the pressured pelerin.
Today heading into Cahors we knew we would be in a bigger town than we had been for a while. Cahors has featured in a number of historical novels I had read and though I couldn’t recall any details I felt the Cathars, Templars and maybe some French royalty had made appearances.
It was a shortish day which helped keep up my enthusiasm but since the two ‘down’ days on the Cele I had really settled back into the walk without question. I enjoyed the moments of nicer weather, enjoyed the changing scenery, hills and all, and looked forward to whatever each day brought. If it brought less hills that was a bonus. On one hill we were surprised to meet another walker, though meet is an exaggeration. He powered past me and barely mumbled a Bonjour in response to ours. A young man in a hurry.
Coming into Cahors was a steep decline. This my knees joined with my feet in taking exception to. Finding another body part that protested was becoming par for the course but I no longer let it worry me. If it was there in the morning, then I’d think more about it, but most things seemed to be cured with a night’s rest. My bunions, which had been needing regular rests through the day, rather than getting worse (really what else was for them to do- I kept giving them the same punishment?) confounded medical science and was no longer causing me any problems at any time. Go figure.
Our hotel was on the outskirts, on the wrong side of the river that was manned with ancient lookout towers. We wandered in after the usual washing routine, bought fresh fruit at the local market, chose the restaurant for dinner and came back for a rest. The beauty of a shorter day was that my feet objected less and we wandered back across the river for dinner, like any other tourist might.
Day 30 Poudally 24 Fri 18/3
I am walking better and twenty four kilometres is still a good distance but seems doable. As we start at first light we are usually in by mid afternoon and today that is even better as we are staying in a Gite and will be cooking for ourselves. I am fantasizing about vegetables and pasta. Unlike at Pic Priory where we risked being in a dormitory with others, this Gite as many along the way do, offers separate rooms. My husband and I, surprisingly are still enjoying each other’s company and if there are others to talk to, that will be good but not essential. With emphasis on talking to, not sleeping with. I am a light sleeper and other people coming to bed and getting up at different times, to say nothing of the snoring, would keep me up all night. I gather this is common across the main route in Spain and holds no attraction for me. If my husband snores I can elbow him.
The weather is mild and the walk reasonable. We pause in one town looking at the war memorial. As always there are far more men lost in the First World War compared to the second. The French countryside is as always picturesque and when we arrive we rest before preparing dinner, chatting to Germans who are returning having already made it to Santiago. They will be the only people we meet on the entire trip who work further than us. It I hard to gauge how momentous the arrival in Santiago was for them. I guess if you’re only half way it kind of takes away from the impact. They look driven.
For us, four weeks in, we just look at the map and see how much closer we are to the border, to St Jean, which, after all, is where we are heading, isn’t it?
Day 29 Limogne en Quercy 20km Thurs 17/3/11
The next day it was as if the previous two hadn’t existed. I woke up ready to walk and never considered any alternative. I was refreshed and rejuvenated, a mere afternoon off it seemed enough to re-orientate me towards St Jean. My husband was still looking at me occasionally with a worried look, but as far as I was concerned I was enjoying the Camino and what it was throwing at me. Well most of the time.
The path took us again through dark forests, this time lined with ancient stone walls, so thick with moss in spots that it was hard to make the wall out. The hues were of deep green, the mysterious forests of childhood books such as The Faraway Tree, full of elms, oaks and maples that at home are largely relegated to the Botanical gardens.
We were staying in a Chambre d’Hotes, a French B&B, and this was run by another single woman we labeled Madame Daytime TV. She was watching it when we arrived and when we left for dinner. After the worst coffee I had ever had there, it was a blessing we decided we weren’t having dinner with her. Not all the French can cook. She had however, bless her, supplied the guest bathroom with every possible cosmetic from eye liner to shampoo. My hair relished the conditioner, first time for some weeks, and I played with every moisturizer I could lay my hands on. Bliss.
In town, we ate Barbary duck at a wonderful little restaurant and as always drank well. The walk home was in the dark- no street lights, just a small torch light. But we made it, and yes, I said to my husband, I wanted to walk on. This had not been a no go day.
Day 28 Cajarc 14km Wed 16/3/11 Day of the dead Cele.
Knowing we only had 14 km to walk helped a lot. That it was all on the road did not. Quite aside from the effect on our feet, there is something soul destroying about walking on a road passed by cars going where you are but much faster and with less pain. A year later when walking the coast to coast I would opt for the boggy moors, mires and all, despite the inclement weather, rather than walk along a road. Even if it meant several extra kilometres. But I wasn’t at that point yet. As far as I was concerned this was day two of ‘no more’. The end was in sight.
Carjarc was a nice town, a little touristy but not too big. Our motel- and it was just like a motel, the only one we stayed in in France, was basic. Nothing quite worked and though there were cooking facilities the gas didn’t work and there were no pots and pans. The heating however did work.
Finishing early meant there was time to wander the town looking at tourist fare I couldn’t buy. Better still there was a wine bar I could sit in eating cheese, drinking wine and reading the local paper. Even if it was in French it felt like a luxury. I refused to think about the next day or how many extra kilometres over all our venture into the Cele had meant. I just wanted to be a tourist on holiday. The sort where you relaxed rather than walked.
We ate in one of the local restaurants, feeling completely human after an afternoon off. I could see my husband itching to ask how I was feeling about more walking but I was trying to feel nothing at all.
My spirits were a little better in the morning, but not much. I wasn’t sure what it was I wanted to do, but walking wasn’t it. But there really wasn’t much else to do. So we walked. The path took us high, us and over and along ridges, sometimes in forests and others with spectacular views. There was no one else walking, but we found ourselves company in the form of two large dogs, who decided to attach themselves to us. They were mongrels both, and one would flop next to us when we rested, regarding us with large hopeful eyes. My husband isn’t a big dog fan but we were both worried they were get lost. They followed us despite us yelling and throwing things in their general direction.
Later we found that this is not so strange. In peak season the dogs have a number of walkers to join and do so for the pleasure of the walk that their owners are presumably too busy to do. They know which way to turn, and if ever we were in doubt, unable to find a scallop shell, our new friends were happy to oblige. After more than eight kilometres we came to a town and went to the Mairie. The women there rolled her eyes and yelled “Andiamo! Maison!” and they left. Naturally. We had been yelling the same thing but in English. What were we thinking?
We finally came to a hill that threatened to defeat me. It wasn’t that it was any harder than the others, it was just yet another, and my frame of mind was negative. I burst into tears and stated that yes this was day one of me saying no. I didn’t want to do this any more.
We stayed with the local mayor and his second (or was it third?) wife. He spoke English well, they had a real coffee machine (bliss) and they both cooked. It was a lovely meal and house but the next day loomed. There was an added problem. Despite the assistance of the Mayor and his wife my husband had been unable to find accommodation. One woman was having a baby, another closed and a third didn’t answer. In my current frame of mind if we turned up and there was no accommodation it wouldn’t have been pretty. So my husband scoured the maps and we changed direction, back to the main route taking the main road. The only good news was that it meant the next day would only be 14 km.
At this point in our trip we had arrived at a choice. While the Chemin St Jacques tries to follow the original route, the pelerins weren’t necessarily an obliging lot who did the same thing. Places like Conques they all visited for food and sustenance but between the Abbeys and churches were hills and rivers and many chose different ways to navigate. Our book showed two alternatives and we elected for the variant via the Cele river. I like rivers and think of flat paths beside them. Unfortunately rivers also have a habit of winding between mountains as we were about to find out.
It was at this point I started to wonder why on earth I was doing this. We had planned just to go to Ste Jean Pied de Port but I knew my husband well enough to know that like me he was harbouring a desire to keep going. All the way. This appealed on one level. I had six months long service leave and no real other plans. We could sit in our French farmhouse and read and write and I was sure we would enjoy it. But there was something enticing about saying we walked out of our door one day in central France and ended up on the Northwest coast of Spain.
But I started to question this vague appeal. Who really cared? We weren’t even using staffs that could be buried with us (my husband’s poles just didn’t have the same romance). Who cared if it was 1000 or 2000 km we walked? Already I had blown any previous record well out of the water. I didn’t need to feel I failed if I called it quits at St Jean. Or right here for that matter. No one of us, we had agreed, could pull the plug (unless for injury reason) unless we felt the same way every day for at least four days. My husband was watching me waryily, willing me not to make the call that this was day one.
I didn’t, but though the scenery was lovely I resented every hill. At the end of the day the walk to our B&B was straight up and I wanted to cry. I was really over this.
Our hosts were determined however that this would be our most memorable night. An older couple whose children had left, they did this more for the love of it than the money. Madame whisked away all our dirty clothes and washed everything and then Monsieur delivered dinner worthy of a Michelin star, right down to the dessert with elegant piping over it. I slept well but was still aware of a definite shift. I wasn’t enjoying this any more.
Day 25 Figeac 29km (Sunday 13/3): Hotel St Jacques (with bath) booked
Day of Sangliers and French onion soup.
Today was a long one. Though I had now been on the Chemin nearly four weeks and was enjoying the rhythm of the days, barely giving a thought to the chaos and rush of my usual life (except missing and wondering about our kids), this hadn’t translated to me thinking 30 km in a day was easy. It still loomed over me as an unachievable goal. It took a long time to walk this far, and my feet hurt by 20km let alone any further.
We were heading for Figeac, a medium sized town we had had heard of from Australian friends who romantically had bought a Chateau somewhere outside of the town. We had never visited and looking at where Figeac is on the map compared to anywhere one might reasonably fly into from Australia, this was one of the reasons why. The other reason was that they only had a share of the Chateau and ever since buying it the couple who were on site seemed to be involved in their very own Year in Provence type renovations. But it was turning into a decade…and the Amercian tourists arriving to finance it all was not filling them with joy.
The walk as always was a mix of country and town, with lots of farm land, roads (the bitumen I’m sure wasn’t helping the feet aches) and tracks. The weather was reasonably mild and though a fine drizzle was never far off, it was good walking weather and we had no complaints. The rhythm of the day meant that often we would walk for long periods with little conversation. Our plan to devise the plot and characters for our next book/screenplay was relegated to five minutes at most in the morning. Our mind turned to watching the scallop shells and soaking in our surrounds. Anything else seemed largely irrelevant.
The sanglier, all three of them (wo dark distant dots here…use your imagination…), were not irrelevant. I knew what it was because my daughter’s French book of animals had one in it. There had been one in the local paper as well, to say nothing of the butcher shops where they were prized. I had eaten sanglier terrine and sanglier stew (under a much better French title) but I had never seen one. They are essentially a wild boar and are dangerous. I marvelled at their casual saunter around this farmer’s field. I looked around for the farmer, hoping they knew something I didn’t. I wasn’t specially worried about their welfare but seeing such a magnificent (albeit ugly) animal slaughtered was not my idea of enjoying the French countryside. I was worried about a French farmer with a gun. We hurried on.
The day was every bit as long as I feared. The walk into Figeac along the bitumen road was agony. We found our lovely little hotel by the railway station (up a street in the wrong direction from town) and I fell into the bath and didn’t ever want to move. Dinner was served downstairs but we would have been the only guests in a rather upmarket little place with rich food I didn’t feel like. Which meant a walk.
It seemed like nothing was open. We walked over the river into town and wandered around a deserted town realizing it was a Sunday night. I was ready to give up when we fell over a trendy wine bar of all things, right on the river. We drunk glasses of local wine, and had the best French onion soup ever made. I went to bed happy.
Day 24 Decazeville 22.5 Sat 12/3
There was a reluctance to leave Conques, as if God or the monks were saying ‘this is safe- why go?’ The town was so quintessentially everything that your average Aussie tourist was looking for, it was hard not to think, well, what else is there? Nothing can surpass this!
This was not helped by the fact that the chemin went sharply downhill – and then, naturally, up again. It was slow going, over uneven paths covered in tree roots and strewn with decaying chestnuts. The one incentive was the chapel on the hill, where we knew if we rang its bell, the bells of the Abbaye Ste Foy would reply.
I’m sure it is all automated. But it really didn’t matter. When I was standing in the middle of a remote chestnut forest, by a tiny chapel, peering through the leaves back at the magnificence of Conques, it wouldn’t mattered if Bruce Willis had dropped in. I was in the 10th century and I was a true pilgrim. Or at least I was when those bells rang back at me after I pulled the chain on my side of the mountain.
It was probably just as well. Though the day wasn’t long (a now standard 22.5km) it went up some significant climbs through dying heather, and then across ridges and farmlands where winds threatened to blow us off at times, and at the very least chilled us to the bone. For much of the walk we were high on a ridge passing industrial towns, all the more hard to take after the beauty of Conques. Finally we descended into one, wandered aimlessly, feet sore for all the supposed short day. Our hotel, well located for leaving the next day, was well out of town and a walk was needed to eat. I begrudged every step. It was only a very good pizza, a glass of wine or two and the welcome company of the Swiss that made me think anything good would every happen again on the walk.
Day 23 Fri 11/3/11 Conques 22km
On the map we were heading far further west than we needed in order to get to the border point, St Jean Pied De Port. But the guide books were all clear why we were heading there, and that it was worth it. This was one of the few nights we were spending with a traditional pelerin host. But the monks at the Abbaye Ste Foy had moved with the times. Yes, they had the dormitories but we would have our own room and bathroom (though with single beds!).
The walk was a pleasant one, the usual hills, forests and fields, green and lush and still cold enough for all the occasional daffodil or wildflower, to remind us we were still in Europe barely out of winter, however mild it had been.
Finally, as we headed down a path through a forest, water cascading over it, we opened out. But instead of an Abbey there was a rather ordinary looking house. Still being built. Ancient abbey this was not. What became apparent was that the path took us up and over and beyond the abbey. We had now come down and had to work our way back. The Abbey, care of the weather in the area, had not been built on the hill but rather hidden on its side, protected as much as it could be.
The guide books were right. Even though I wasn’t here for the religious significance, this town should be on everyone’s list. An A-lister for tourists, religious aficionados and historians as well as camino walkers this town seemed to be in a time warp. Yes there were the tourist shops but every building looked straight out of the ninth century, the abbey and all its buildings dominates the town and gives it the focus that is hard to avoid. The brothers (or fathers?) in age old robes, the huge doors of the abbey I marvel at from the balcony of the bar where I sip wine with the Swiss we had met days earlier, the statue of the martyred 12 old. All are from another place and time and yet there I am, a part of it magically, taken back in time and reliving the lives of those who built the abbey, who died poor and happy or poor and unhappy.
We eat with the monks, a basic, cheap meal (canned Salmon, it’s Friday…) where we help and there appears to be volunteers. Some eating with us are visiting for religious reasons but are not walkers. They come to the blessing ceremony regardless.
It is not in the main cathedral, but rather in a small chapel. I sit in the back, self-consciously atheist. The monks file in. They sing, magically without music, in perfect tune, filling the white walls with its cross and basic windows with magic. In Latin, French, possibly both, I am overcome with the tingling that goes up and down my spine, by the beauty of their voices, the same voices that have sung here day in and out for centuries. I take their (nonreligious) walkers blessing humbly, mindful that they and I have shared something here that transcends this world and mere beliefs. It is about the beauty of all things and all that man can do, and I accept it humbly and gratefully, letting this message of the Camino sit and work into my soul. I am not, like Paul Coelho, likely to have a religious epiphany. But the Camino works in many ways, and this adds to my internal checklist. Conques will always hold a special place in my heart.
We note in the guest book as we leave book that Jocelyn the French women had spent the previous night there, with Lionel the American and Mattias the Belgian boy. It seemed it had been special to them too.
Day 22 Thu 10/3 27.8 km (490km) Golinhac
We start as always with winter hat and gloves that are only removed to sample the fresh croissant as we leave Espalion alongside the river, still covered in the early morning mist. It’s a long day today and I peer at the GPS and see that we are closing in on a total of 500km- tomorrow we will make in enroute to Conques.
After the brief luxury of walking along the river (read flat) we are confronted with a hard climb but at the top are rewarded with panoramic views as we walk across the high plains. The chemin takes us through towns, some with little more than a church, but they are always old and central to the village and village life. More than once we are serenaded through the town or valley by the ringing of the bells that have rung countless times throughout the ages.
The day warms up. As we reach another river we see Estrange (I may not have spelt this properly) and are tantalized by what looks like café’s with tables and chairs in the sun. We are in luck. One is open, and beneath the Chateau or cathedral towering over the town we sit and watch a woman in shorts (we take off the mittens and hat and even jacket but shorts seems extreme) pruning a wisteria. The coffee is great and enough to keep us going along a winding section by the river before the next, inevitable hill.
Day 21 Wed 9/3 24.5km Espalion
The spring in our step at having survived the Aubrac, and having been lucky enough to at this time of year get through it minus snow, was added to by the weather. Still cool in the morning, the sun fought the clouds the won. My frostbitten nose was particularly appreciative.
The chemin took us across fields and through woods, the usual hills and the occasion town. In one the small church had a lovely table and chairs for a picnic but while the shade would have been welcome in midsummer, I took the wall in full sunshine. Around the trees near the church daffodils were out and sitting drinking coffee and resting my feet I took in the change of season and celebrated and appreciated it in a way I hadn’t ever before.
In one of the many books I read on the Camino de Santiago (A Food Lover’s Pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela by Dee Nolan and photographed by Earl Carter, Lantern/Penguin 2010) the author (who herself only did an 11 day section but drove to many places including some of the French section) talked to other walkers and she and they came to the conclusion that the secret of the chemin/camino was time. That suddenly time became yours, and it fitted you rather than the race we have in our usual day to day lives between people and events and stressed further by emails, tweets and Facebook.
As Spring bloomed and I could just sit and enjoy, this truth was never more apparent. We had nothing to worry about except getting to the next
town. We were now bonafide walkers so this didn’t worry us too much (as long as we weren’t going anything close to 30 km) and instead the day was about the surprises, the Mary on the hill (did we really go all the way up this peak just for that???), the castle towering over us as we drank in more sun drinking coffee by the river, the river walk that said ‘no cars’ but they drove along anyway.
My husband had booked the next three days accommodation so our only decision at night would be where to eat. Tonight we would be in Espalion, a large town over a river with stone carvings looking down over walkers, and plenty of choices. We could linger in shops, have pizza or fine cuisine. I would wash as always and put the wet socks and underwear over the heaters where they would be ready in the morning. I would shower and my feet would say please don’t walk around the town (I do anyway) but then settle down to the fine cuisine in our hotel and stagger up to our room after. There is no one to ring, nothing more to think about except the next day and the rolling hills ahead of us.
Day 20 Chely D-Aubrac 17km
We were now right in the heart of the Aubrac about which we had been warned.
‘It is not passable at this time of year!’ authoritatively from the Cluny tourist office.
‘There are roads around,’ said M. Sootie.
‘People have been lost and nearly died.’ And ‘last year there were search parties out’ from fellow walkers.
We were certainly more than happy that we had a GPS. On the windswept plains, which thanks to no snow we were able to traverse without fighting police and SES barriers, any sign of a trail quickly disappeared and we wandered along fence lines looking for a crossing. The GPS showed a trail that as far as we could make out had never existed, certainly not one that made creek and fence crossings any easier. It was bitterly cold, and my nose was soon feeling as numb as my gloved fingers. There was no stopping for rests or food, we needed shelter.
At one stage we saw a scallop shell high on a post. Despite the GPS, it was reassuring. Nearby we found the small hut the lost walkers from the previous season had hauled up in. It was basic, but anything would be better than the Aubrac in a snow storm.
When we finally came off the high plains into a town our guide book assured us was full of cafes, we were cold a desperate for a coffee. Desperate we were to remain. Despite at t\least three, one with a man inside right next to the machine, the message was the same. It is winter, we are closed.
Off the Aubrac plains the weather was a little warmer but by now my nose was in pain. When I finally made it into the small hotel we had booked for the night, it was alternating between red and blue. Dinner at least was only downstairs and we started early, joined by the Swiss couple who we had met and walked but then hitchhiked back for their van in which they slept. Tonight they were eating at the hotel and joined us. Without my black hat they hadn’t recognised me. We were soon enjoying wine, fine food and good company. And celebrating our survival of the Aubrac. Only my nose, clearly with frostbite, had not survived.
Day 19: Nasbinals 27 km